Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 49 - Bonnie Tsui - WHY WE SWIM - Part 3 of 3

Sensory deprivation tank that’s the one I was talking about.

Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. Well, isn’t that, also it’s darkness too.



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JESSE: Sensory deprivation tank that’s the one I was talking about.

BONNIE: Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. Well, isn’t that, also it’s darkness too.

JESSE: It’s dark as well.

BONNIE: It’s darkness. I’ve never gotten into one [??? 00:11]

JESSE: It’s supposed to be just like, there’s enough salt that it takes no effort to stay above the water so you just float. And then it’s completely dark. Absolutely dark. No sound, nothing. I’ve heard people will begin to hallucinate because of the lack of light, it’s that dark. But I think you’re onto something with the sound because I know and I thought about this a couple of nights ago that like, often I end up sleeping on my side, even though I’m more comfortable laying on my back.

Because one of my ears is on the pillow and it takes the sound element out. So, it’s like if I could take the sound element out like I notice it’s easier for me to relax and to let my brain fade away. I don’t have any kind of cursory noise.

BONNIE: Yeah. That’s just sort of– Because your brain will snag on– I mean you think about sometimes you’re falling asleep, you’re falling asleep, you don’t realize you’re drifting off until something like a sound sharp enough that you do that start thing. And then you, oh man I was almost there. But you didn’t really even notice it because it was so [??? 01:22] nice slow runway until that sound caught you. It’s like a snag in your brain or something. Yeah.

JESSE: Yeah. You know, funny enough swimming used to cause that snag for me.

BONNIE: Really?

JESSE: I was swimming too much yardage for my fitness level at the time. I really was kind of stretching myself thin and I would be going to sleep and I would jerk and wake myself up and like I would be trying to like bring my arm around like I’m swimming.

And my girlfriend at the time, there are several occasions where I like smacked her in the face on accident, because I was like, trying to swim while I’m trying to sleep at the same time because my arms were just so like, I don’t know, just so shot from the amount of stress I was putting on them. So, it was an interesting– [crosstalk]

BONNIE: Did she recommend that you stop swimming or swim more? What was her thought on it? [??? 02:18] don’t punch me in the face.

JESSE: I think it was just don’t punch me in the face. It wasn’t even like you– She was good about it. It wasn’t like, she was like, mad or anything. She’s just like, just another time like–

BONNIE: Maybe instead of doing butterfly, you should try to do like backstroke or something so that you’re not as wide.

JESSE: Yeah, not as wide. But I am curious. So, based on the language, you use kind of describing like this present thought in where you are with swimming, again in that excerpt where you’re talking about swimming, you’re both floating and in danger of sinking and like having to be active. Yet also like we talked about in contrast with running, not having to be quite as like it to continue to move.

Do you have prior to the book or putting your thoughts together; do you have like a mindfulness practice or meditative practice that you spend time thinking about those kinds of things? Or is it just our kind of culture, bringing that together into your head?

BONNIE: I don’t have a mindfulness practice. Several years ago, a friend of mine and I thought it might be good to try to go to– So, I live right here in Berkeley, and there’s a Buddhist Priory where you can kind of go and do like a free meditation session class. And at the time, I just remember thinking you know, sitting you have to kneel in this dim room.

And I can’t even remember what the period of time was but I think it was like 30 minutes, maybe even 20 minutes, but it felt like an eternity and I kept just thinking about how my knee hurt. And I do not think– Maybe I glimpsed that maybe that I could get into that flow state– just the state of being where I just didn’t notice the time passing. But I really was glad that it was over. And I think it is because swimming has come to take that role in my life.

And certainly, in the writing of the book, I interrogated that because I was wondering why is it that I feel so much better after I do it and I feel different at the end than at the beginning. And I wanted to– I was paying more attention to as I was writing those particular sections of the book where I was asking myself those questions. Because I wanted to get scenes in there of what it is like to go swimming.

Like you can’t read a book about swimming without actually conjuring up the really granular like wonderful, crisp feeling of what it is like to be in the water. And so I saw that I was paying more attention to what that was like. And so there’ll be days where I would be swimming and then I would see like a bird go across the sky.

And then I remember thinking, I wonder how many times like a bird poops in the pool like in a day. And I had never wondered that before and I thought, huh. And where does that go? And just started following my thoughts like I with that into the gutter of the pool. Just really thinking funny thoughts, just following them where they would take me and realizing over time that there was something really beneficial about that like this wandering. And the creativity of that certainly was helpful to me as a writer.

But just for just mental health, allowing myself to think thoughts for no particular reason. Because we are really always expected to produce and we’re always expected to keep thinking about the angle on things and trying to figure out the next step of things and in our work and productivity and all that in work in life and family life, just whatever it is, or your responsibilities every day. And so it’s a luxury to have the space to wander about bird poop and wander in this place that is your time.

And I actually remember I asked the Olympian, Dara Torres, who’s just– she’s been in five Olympics and she’s like the ultimate competitor. But I asked her what she thinks about when she’s swimming. And she said sometimes I’m thinking about like all the things I have to do and I got errands I gotta run. But she also says like, sometimes she’s just not thinking about anything. And for someone who’s always on to know that that time is your time to do with it what you will is just really pretty special.

JESSE: Yeah, yeah. I think sometimes as a culture because we’re so like work and productivity-focused, that we undervalue the time spent not doing anything. I don’t know how your creative process goes. Obviously, as a journalist, you put a lot of words out. And quite eloquently you’re not writing like I write, which is just slap something on the page and go with it.

BONNIE: It always has to start somewhere. You can’t get anywhere unless you do that.

JESSE: Right, right. But I find– I have other creative outlets. So, one of the things I do is I create original card games and board games. So, I have to create these sometimes complex systems of rules, and they all have to balance and do all these kinds of things. And it’s like one of the first games I made I basically came up with and designed the whole thing while I was swimming, just because I allowed my brain to be like, just start making associations. And I wasn’t worried about it being perfect. It was just like, just let it do its thing instead of forcing it.

BONNIE: [??? 08:56] you are the perfect example of what I am talking about. I’m just gonna take a picture of you and paste it into that part of my book.

JESSE: [??? 09:04] a lot of work, I guess. Yeah, it’s just like, I think people forget that downtime sometimes is more productive than forcing yourself to sit in front of a screen, put things out.

BONNIE: And that is never– Yeah, that has a limited shelf life, that approach. And in fact, my next book, which I am supposed to be writing already is about just that process of like fallow time, which is the time that you have to, I guess unstructured time, that sort of like, or whatever it is that you do that’s outside of your– that maybe it’s not recognized as your work that allows you to do that work better, or that allows you to be more creative, it allows you to sort of basically [??? 10:00] your–

It’s like taking care of that soil and letting it lie fallow the soil Except that it’s like your brain and your creativity and just like your imagination and your resources, basically. It’s like your mental and emotional resources to make the things that make your work worthwhile, basically.

So, I think swimming for me is definitely that kind of time. And for you, too, it sounds like because it happens when you’re not really trying to do the work. And swimming as a conduit to that. And I think that’s what I think is really cool about, about the practice, but also it’s a lot of other practices that other people have that let them do what they need to do.

So, it’s like replenishing time. It’s like time off the clock, but it is still time that is valuable. But unfortunately, we don’t really as a culture allow ourselves to have that. Although right now it’s like, possibly the greatest possible experiment in this [??? 11:15] to hey, you got more time than you ever thought you would ever have.

JESSE: I feel like I see a lot of people putting out videos with very creative stuff right now when they’re just trying to fill their time with things. And they’re just like, really letting that creative– Like, let’s explore if we can possibly do this and then do things they wouldn’t normally be doing and making kind of like fun connections. Some of them are silly, some of them are profound. But it’s like, things that wouldn’t have happened if we were still forcing everybody to be at work and doing the normal routine.

BONNIE: Yeah, you know, it’s funny because sometimes just a big free– a blank slate is beneficial to creativity. But sometimes the restrictions on that [??? 12:10] are what gives you something to push against and react against. And I think this could be a whole– this whole experiment that we’re going on in right now with the pandemic is definitely I think that it could be seen as that frame to push against.

JESSE: Yeah. Well, it’s, like you said, there’s a balance here where it’s like, some people operate very well when you say, you can do absolutely anything. And then other people start freaking out.

BONNIE: Paralyzed by that.

JESSE: Yeah. And they cannot do it. So, then you have to say, okay, here’s a 10 by 10 room. Here’s some supplies. You could do anything with these supplies inside this room. And then they’re like, okay, I’m doing better now. Like this is my zone. So, it’s like finding the balance between those two. And it’s, you almost have to take people on an individual level and say, how does this person operate, which when we’re building like, work systems is not really scalable. So, that’s why the corporate environment doesn’t really foster that kind of idea. Yeah. I did see, I think you also have a children’s book coming up soon.

BONNIE: Yes, I do.

JESSE: So, I’m wondering, it seems like you swap through a lot of genres. You’re not just like only a children’s author or only talk about some stuff. Like you go through a fair number of genres. So, how do you navigate the different genres? I assume that means you’re a journalist in the most pure sense of the word.

BONNIE: That’s a great question. I think that at this particular point of my career, it has been really fun to see opportunities open up that I didn’t necessarily see. So, that children’s book came about because– I mean, I had always wanted to write a children’s book, but it is not a field that you can break into easily.

Even if you are a writer, it’s just a very specific genre and it has its own doors that are– it’s hard to get into. But I wrote this cover story for California Sunday magazine about women big wave surfers and how they were preparing to surf Mavericks here, a break down here in California. And a children’s book editor in New York saw the story and said, this is so interesting. And she called me up and she said, would you be interested in writing a children’s book about this? And I said, yes, I would. Absolutely I would.

So, I mean, it’s a credit to that children’s book author. She could have, you know, you could see a scenario which she said, that’s a great idea, I’m gonna ask this already a children’s book author to write about this. But you also see a lot of children’s books out there that are not very good for various reasons. And part of it is because I think they try to communicate too much information and not a storified way.

Think about biographies of figures, like famous figures that you want your kids to know. And so they try to tell the story of say, Sally Ride, the first woman in space and it’s basically all of Sally’s life facts like vomited into a kid’s book. And it’s not interesting because it’s not the story of her life, like how she came to be an astronaut, or who she is. And so you may know these bare facts about her, but you don’t really know who Sally Ride is.

And so I have read a lot of children’s books because I have a seven and nine year old, many, many times. I read the same books over and over again. But when I was asked to write this book, I went and looked at more and more books and saw what I had just told you, which is that a lot of books didn’t really have the story. And so I say, well, if I were going to tell a story of the first woman who surfed Mavericks, like what does that experience actually look like?

And so how I approached it was to tell the story of like her meeting– the day she met that first wave. And so that involves waves forming in the Pacific, it involves what her life has been waiting for this wave to surf. And then it’s a moment that they meet, and they surf the wave.

And so it’s like, it’s trying to create the narrative drama for a story for a kid that anybody wants. Just because it’s a kid’s book it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have that, it should. And so I wanted to do that and I think that’s why it succeeded and she wanted to buy the book. But all this is to say that like I am, I think, I feel very lucky to be at this point in my career where people are asking me to do things because that maybe is not expected or intuitive because I have done good enough work that it makes them want to take a chance on me in something that’s totally different. So, I really appreciate that.

I feel very blessed. But I also feel like I just want to keep trying things. I think it’s really fun to not just watch from the sidelines. I want to be like doing those things. And I really hope that those opportunities keep coming up.

JESSE: Well, I think to your credit, [??? 18:25] specifically about children’s books, you have the ability at this point to look at a kid’s book and say, well, what actually makes a good kids book. Because I think a lot of people– I mean, how many people, almost everybody, I’m getting a little over-exaggeration, but how many people have you heard say, I can write a kid’s book?

BONNIE: So many.

JESSE: It’s like so many people. Okay. Do you think you can write that kid’s book because there’s not that many words and it’s very simple? [crosstalk] I think that’s why people say that. But it’s like, okay, at the same time that means you have less words to make an impact, communicate his story, bring character development. As a corporate example, it’s like you’re trying to become Apple as an author because you want a very complex thing in the most elegant, simple package you can get it which is much more expertise than you think it is. [crosstalk]

BONNIE: Right. And actually that’s very, very hard. Yeah. And it was, I mean, for me, it was also serendipity, right? I was asked to do this at a time in my life when I was reading so many children’s books to my kids with my kids that we’re– some were magical, some were incredible, and some were really not. And so I was able to interrogate why was that? Like, why did I think that as a writer? And so it really was so serendipitous because I couldn’t have done that 10 years ago because I wasn’t reading like [??? 20:20] children’s books a week like forced to anyway in my daily life.

And so that– Yeah, and I think I am actually a really big believer in being ready for the thing that comes at you when it comes. But you don’t know when that happens. And I think that part of it is just being open to that opportunity when it does come. And cultivating that is just cultivating curiosity.

JESSE: I mean, it’s a little cliche, but I do like the saying that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. Because say as you mentioned, say that opportunity had come 10 years ago and you weren’t reading kid’s books, maybe you could write the book, but it wouldn’t be as good as now that you have insight about the books.

BONNIE: I’m reasonably sure it would have sucked. Yeah, I want to be honest, right. I just– yeah. Anyway. Yeah, I think it’s exciting. I think it’s an exciting time. It’s an uncertain time, which is also scary, but you know, trying to stay [??? 21:40] about it.

JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. So, Bonnie as we’re starting to run out of time, there’s a question I’m asking everybody this year because it’s thematically something that kind of crosses boundaries, and everybody has different answers. So, I want to ask you, what do you think the purpose of sport is?

BONNIE: Oh, wow. I mean, I think that the purpose of sport on a very basic level is play, right? It’s an excuse to keep playing through adulthood. And I thought about this when I was writing this book because swimming is one of those activities that you see– Okay, so from a kid point of view, you see, you just go to the pool or go to the beach on any summer day and you are a witness to joy, you’re a witness to just kids [??? 22:39]

They’re in the water and they just love to be there cannon bawling, just spiraling around and just playing games and splashing. And that is very much pure like it is pure play. But at the same time, you see, I’ll go to the pool, I’ll be doing my laps and I will see these guys; men and women of like advanced age where they seem very serious and they’re swimming their laps, and then they leave the pool and then they do [??? 23:07].

I’ve seen this so many times, I just love it so much where they’ll dive down and like dive under the lanes to get to the ladder. But they’re not just like doing it in a functional way. They’re just like, they will dive down and they will kind of dolphin and they’ll spiral and then they’ll do a flip. You know, they’ll do something, just for the pure reason of just doing it because it’s fun. And so I think water and swimming has that ability to very obviously, very clearly bring that element of play out in all of us. And I think that does translate to sport more broadly. But I think with swimming, it’s really easy to see and that is– I think that’s why it makes me really happy to do it.

JESSE: That’s a great answer. Play is a new one so I’m glad you brought that up.

BONNIE: All right.

JESSE: So, if people want to get the book, find you, where can they buy the book? And where can they kind of keep up with what you’re doing?

BONNIE: Sure. They can buy the book anywhere books are sold, online bookstores of all sorts. is a really great option because it connects you to your local independent booksellers. And you can find me on my website, That’s, and on Twitter, same deal.

JESSE: Sounds good. So, in case anybody’s listening and not seeing it on the screen, again, the book is called Why We Swim. Bonnie, thanks for spending time with me today.

BONNIE: Thanks, Jessie. It was a pleasure.

JESSE: Take care.

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